Blu-ray: Buyer Beware
If you are looking to buy a Blu-ray player right now, be careful, as not all Blu-ray players are created equally.
As this news article explains quite well, there are in fact 3 different classes of Blu-ray players – something that most people are unaware of. These classes, or “profiles”, describe the compulsory feature set that the player must support, unlike HD DVD, which has a single standard specification when it comes to things like extra features and Internet connectivity (it does have to different “levels” to describe hardware features like on-board audio decoding, and support for additional add-on storage). The earliest Blu-ray players are profile 1.0 (Grace Period Profile), then 1.1 (Final Standard Profile) and finally, 2.0 (BD-Live). Only profile 2.0 players will feature the same interactive and Internet enabled content that is supported by all HD DVD players from day one, but as the article points out, neither profile 1.1 or 2.0 is mandatory at the moment and players released now do not have to be certified for 1.1 compatibility until November 1st, 2007. Why did the Blu-ray group sell players without having a “Final Standard”, especially ones that costs way more than HD DVD players, one can only imagine (perhaps they were too busy trying to fit in the 3 levels of copy protection, and didn’t have time to work on the actual features of the players).
When profile 1.1 and 2.0 players rolls out, Blu-ray will have more persistent storage than HD DVD (most HD DVD players have 128 MB, whereas BD 1.1 requires 256 MB and 2.0 will have a full GB – the Xbox 360 add-on drive has 192 MB currently). Persistent storage is used to store things like bookmarks, downloaded content. HD DVD performance level 2 players will have the ablity for you to hook up additional storage devices (such as USB memory sticks) to use a persistent storage, which one might argue is a much better (and portable) solution than having internal storage.
So what will happen to people who own profile 1.0 players? Well, some of them can get a software upgrade which will add some of the new software interactive features (the PS3 being the easiest to upgrade, since it has the hardware to make it work). People who own 1.0/1.1 players might even be able to upgrade to 2.0 through software if their player has enough persistent storage, an Ethernet port and enough processing power (very unlikely though). If an upgrade is viable, the upgrading process is a firmware update, and if the player does not have Internet connection (very unlikely if it’s a 1.0 player, unless it’s the PS3), then it means downloading the firmware on your computer, burning to CD/DVD and then inserting the disc into the player … not exactly something that your average consumer will feel at ease with.
Is there a chance that future Blu-ray movies won’t play on your 1.0 or 1.1 player? Yes. Or at the very least, the extra features that require 1.1/2.0 will fail to work, or produce weird playback problems. The head guy over at Denon gave out a very definitive “maybe not” statement a couple of months ago regarding whether profile 1.0 players will play profile 1.1/2.0 movies. If people are really stuck with an 1.0 player that can’t be upgraded, they will have to buy a new 1.1 or 2.0 player to benefit from the full set of Blu-ray features, which is quite ridiculous since many of these 1.0 player are not even a year old yet.
One of the main reasons that Paramount quoted for dropping Blu-ray was the confusion over profiles – they had to test each title under each profile, but the need for 1.0 compatibility meant that titles might have to be limited in extra features. What they did was to produce the HD DVD version of the title first with full features, and then port that over to Blu-ray and remove features that didn’t work. Even then, it did not guarantee that the movie will work on all players, since there are so many versions out there. Their stance of dropping Blu-ray for 18 months make sense, the profiles would have been settled and the only players on sale by then would be profile 2.0 players. While HD DVD owners are enjoying the advanced features for titles such as Shrek The Third and Transformers, Blu-ray owners will be left there sitting and wondering if their player will work with future titles.
My advice? Don’t buy a Blu-ray player until profile 2.0 is available, or if you have to buy one now, buy the PS3 which may only need a software update due to it’s flexible hardware. If all this seems quite troubling, thanks to some very bad decision making from the Blu-ray group, then perhaps the settled specifications that HD DVD offers might suit you better. I have the HD DVD add-on drive for my Xbox 360, but I won’t be buying a standalone HD player until a dual-format (with Blu-ray profile 2.0 support) comes out, which seems to be at least a year away (and even then, it might be too expensive).
Update: Seeing as this relatively old blog entry has just been linked in a few places, I thought it prudent to post an update, as since this post I have purchased a PS3 for Blu-ray playback. The main reason I chose the PS3 as my Blu-ray player of choice is that it had the potential to be upgraded to Profile 1.1, 2.0 and beyond (Profile 1.1. compatibility was released as a firmware update a few weeks after I purchased the machine). There’s no technical reason why it can’t be upgraded to 2.0, and Sony has been quite vocal on getting 2.0 support on the PS3 sooner rather than later. This is why the PS3 is still and will most likely for a while, be the Blu-ray player of choice (the advanced nature of the hardware means faster loading and responsiveness than all other standalones, so there’s another bonus too). Just make sure you get the official Blu-ray remote, as playing back movies using the wireless gamepad is a bit of a pain. More information and Blu-ray buying tips in my new Blu-ray and HD DVD Buyer’s Guide.